A FEW MOMENTS WITH…WILFRED WONG In 1995, BevMo! hired Wilfred Wong as cellar master. Wong, a native San Franciscan who is a veteran wine competition judge and wine writer, assesses wines for the retailer and gives them scores on a 100-point system. Wong keeps a blog on the company’s website, and helped establish “Vineyard Partners”, an in-house label composed of wines that are specially blended for the retailer. I was able to speak recently with Mr. Wong and chat with him about wine, sports and whatever came to mind. Enjoy…. BP: Well, good afternoon Wilfred thanks for speaking with us today. As you may know, boozepress.com is an online resource that looks at all things pertaining to the beverage and fine dining lifestyle in a more casual, fun and humorous manner. So interviews tend to go along the same lines. WW: Good, I’m all about my readers enjoying the product…my research is “X” but my enjoyment is “Y”. It seems too often in this industry people get caught up with themselves, I feels that when we talk to the public we need to be friendly without insulting them. Not dumbing things down, but to help them feel good about the subject. BP: You were already fairly well established in the wine industry when the BevMo deal happened, how exactly did that come about? WW: This was 1995 and I had been in the wine business since 1970, so I had already been around for 25 years. BevMo only had 6 stores at that time and was in a dire need of an import wine buyer, which was a skill set I already had, so shortly after the interview they hired me. BP: I’ve read recently in an interview, where you were talking about wines that you may or may not necessarily like and how to rate them. That when doing reviews you have to look at them from an angle of “would someone who likes this kind of wine, like it”. WW: That’s a perspective I take, and not everybody takes. To me if you are defined in this business by your knowledge of product and what makes up the wine quality, then you need to recognize the various style and appellations that are out there whether you drink that wine or not. If it’s a legitimate category, even the emerging and developing or the quasi categories. Right now for instance, there are some sweet reds that are coming into the market place and as a professional, its important to recognize and reconcile within yourself if it is a legitimate or non-legitimate category and if you do, then you have to rate it within the factors of your scoring system. BP: Does BevMo instruct you in any way or look for you to go in any certain direction or is it all your baby? WW: No, it’s all about me, my ratings belong to me totally. I’m not a buyer for them, haven’t been since 1999. I have developed the import selection system but I don’t buy the wines at all. My job is to taste whatever I feel I should taste, even things we don’t carry, as it’s for the research. I’m basically the research department for BevMo…for wines specifically, and for some spirits as well…so no, no instruction from them at all. They cry if I don’t give them the rating that they want, but in the end I need to reconcile a score I give to wine for myself and my audience. BP: I was reading about some of the banker wines you were describing, would you say any of the wines that are exclusive to BevMo would fit into that category? WW: No, not at all. There are 2 categories of exclusive. There are exclusive wines that a company sells to us that are already available to the market, but they make it exclusive to us which I treat it like any other wine. Those wines I quite often do not give a very high rating to but they sell good enough. Then there are wines that the buyers will have me taste and they say if you give it “x” rating then will buy it, if you don’t then we wont buy it. Many times I’ll try it and its terrible and then they’ll tell the supplier, sorry we cant buy it. BP: So then how do you classify a banker wine? WW: I classify a banker wine as wines that are made for the general marketplace. If you take an over-oaked Cabernet that’s extracted and rich and soft in tannins and is really quite tasty in it’s style, and because there’s a certain consumer group that likes oak…that also like sugar they will buy it. Especially in Chardonnay, there’s a lot of sugar in many Chardonnays that I believe is on the threshold, that makes the wine softer and easier to drink. Those are wines that are playing to a larger group of the audience. Non-banker wines are usually the single vineyard wines or the unusual ones that may not be that popular to a lot of people because they’re too individualistic. BP: At Booze Press we have a strong focus on California wines, do you have a favorite region or appellation? WW: Consumers love Napa Valley and Sonoma County.  Those are two areas that have a lot of wine and they’re different too. Napa’s strength is the Cabernet-based kind of wines and Sonoma has a divergent selection but they produce enough solid wines in different categories that people can rely on them. There is obviously enough quantity and enough know how to make a wine that stays within a perceived range of quality. BP: Robert Parker and others have really come to love Paso Robles recently, what are your thoughts on that region? WW: Paso has a lot of issues, some of which are good and some not so good. They do have some really good wines, but there are many wines that are not so great. I think they have a high alcohol issue going on and the extraction is often too big, but they have the right flavor components, so at some point when they define it better, they will be good.  Paso Robles is hanging in quite well, they have great potential and in say 10 or 15 years, if they keep rising at the current pace they’ll find their sweet spot. But right now they are up and down at times. BP: I see by your tweets that you’re a strong Giants fan, any other teams or sports you follow? WW: I do like the Giants and also the Niners and I enjoy the Olympics when they’re here, that’s about it. Trying to keep track of two teams in my life is quite enough. BP: So since I’m a Cardinals fan are we going to have issues (laughs)? WW: It’s funny you say that, I got a message yesterday from someone who said you tweet so much about the Giants it drives me crazy, but first and foremost I’m a baseball fan. If it’s a well pitched game and my team loses, I’m OK with that. I put friendship over partisan sports every time. If a friend of mine, like you, is a Cardinal fan then the relationship that we have is more important than the teams. BP: Exactly, I feel the same way about religion and politics. I have friends who don’t think like me but we can still be friends because we have other common ground. WW: Yes! The value of friendship is not quantified by who you please. BP: Another area here on the site touches on the correlation between wine and music, I called it Wine Women and Song because I try to showcase the synergy between these topics. Is there any activity other than eating that you associate with wine? WW: Essential when I’m writing I’m in my zone. Today for instance I had a tasting meeting and prior to…all hell was breaking loose around me. I had deadlines to set up and planning for all the things that were going to be going on for my day. My office is fairly secluded at headquarters so I am away from it all, which is nice.  I utilize music as well, as I will often have a very soft pastoral sound when I’m tasting. Some people like it completely quiet, I like something to keep me calm. It also helps me to visualize the wines. Sometimes you’ll see a comment from me like “the 08′ Roth Cabernet reminds me of Audrey Hepburn in style, because it’s elegant and pure and it has elements of earth, leaves  and the fruit. It is a well balanced wine, it’s not overdone and its more on the stylish side”. I will assign personalities to the them. I don’t put that in the reviews but I may mention it in the postings I do, like on Facebook or something. So there are definitely things other than food you can equate a wine with. BP: When tasting wines, after the set up, what’s your process? WW: I let the wine come to me, when I’m tasting them, I look at the elements of the wine. If it has aromas of apples, oranges, peaches whatever…medium body, soft acid etc etc..my notes are very descriptive internally, much more detailed and interesting than notes I write on assignment because when tasting you have to have complete freedom of flow. You have to let the wine speak to you, because sometimes it may remind me of a dark sky with no moon. Now that wouldn’t make sense to readers, but it gives me a background to why I might want to push a wine. BP: Does your wife share your culinary passions? WW: She can cook and she can taste, but it isn’t her passion. But as you know, the path we all take is singular, you can’t expect others to adopt yours. Passion is what it is, you can’t make it up or force feed it to someone. We do cook together quite a bit actually, but her passion for wine is nothing like mine. BP: OK, you’re only a deserted island and a world class chef stops by for one night, but then he has to take off right after, what’s he going to cook for you? WW: I would like..my God, some type of protein and as al dente and as raw as possible, but slightly cooked vegetables…and I like mild chilies and then as far as the wine, depending on the severity of the food, a Pinot Noir or a Rhone blend. BP: That’s it for my questions, so now it’s your turn. If you have any questions for me, you can ask me two. WW: Wow, OK. How do you find professionals in the wine business? Are they easy to work with in this kind of scenario? BP: Yes, they are. I think in speaking with either people in the business or especially wine owners or winemakers, they love talking about what they do. Those are the type of people that I really enjoy hanging around because they are very natural and very real and I find it’s a very relaxing experience for me. WW: Do you reach out beyond California to learn more about wines or do you stay strictly within California? BP: Yes, we do, The basis of my overall marketing plan which can be seen in my publishing company name, Booze Press Communications, is to create and design a site model that works with wines from across the world as well as spirits and craft beers. WW: Well good luck on that! BP: Thank you Wilfred, and good luck to you. It’s been a pleasure speaking to you WW: …and to you